Lily

I exist in both shadows and light. I am happiness, and I am grief. But, I don’t destroy. I only convert--which is why my past actions have shocked me. I took a soul doomed to exist without a body and cursed it to an existence filled with pain. I cannot go back; I cannot hide from what I’ve done. I am Death--and I have learned how it feels to lose what you love.

*

Each universe has its own laws, and to these I am bound. I am not dead, for I have never been alive. Praesaepultus is where I exist, the plane between that of the living and the dead. I cannot be seen nor detected, like the dead, but my body is bound to the earth by the same basic energies and laws as those around me. I can be bumped, thrown, cut--no one would be able to hear my screams.

A nurse knocks me in the ribs as she pushes a gurney down the hall of Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. Monitors beep, their tones getting louder as they compete with one another for attention. Doctors sneak away for one more pill in the maintenance closet. I walk among them, undetected, bumping into mothers waiting for news of their children and family members grieving the loss of their loved ones. Hospitals are sad places, and my presence is everywhere.

The staircase is empty and I take the steps two at a time to get to the fifth floor. I use the Family Birth Center to cut across the hospital to the Stroke Treatment Center. I’m behind schedule, worried that I won’t make it on time, when something catches my eye. A woman sits in a hospital bed, her newborn baby in her arms. She screams into her husband’s shoulder as her entire body shakes. She’s given birth to a stillborn. A small, blue ball of light hovers in her lap, pulsating.

Spirits enter the body at the moment of birth, but this one couldn’t make it inside. The doctor inches toward the door with his clipboard held to his chest. His heart palpitates, and he excuses himself for a moment, feigning sadness. He’s off in search of another medication, which will lead him straight to me by July.

Before I can stop myself, I’m inside the room and reaching toward the orb. As if sensing my presence, its muted colors glow until I’m bathed in every shade of blue. My pointer finger dips into the light. It shivers around my touch and a warmth spreads through my body. The spirit takes to the air and dances around me, tapping me on the cheek as if giving me a kiss. I know what it wants.

Gently, I take it in my hand and set it down over the child’s body. Blush starts over the baby’s heart and spreads through its body until a soft cry joins that of the mother. In an instant, I’m shoved out of the way as the doctor is called back and the nurses begin running their tests again, wondering what they missed.

I close my eyes, and remember why I have never helped a soul into a body before. Her death will be a tragedy, and will come well before her time. I cannot see the time or place, only the means, and even that is not as clear as it always has been. The moment people are born, I see flashes of their death in clarity. Lily’s is dull, and faded on the edges--something inside my chest tightens until I cannot breathe. The baby reaches out toward me, her eyes open wide. She’s looking at me.

“Where’s my wife?” I turn around to see an old man, eyes squinted. I duck out of the room and lead him to the stairwell. He disappears the moment he crosses the threshold, calling out for Betsy.

I take one last look back at the delivery room and then follow him. I step out onto a city block, early morning clouds casting a grey light over the Southside of Chicago. Three years have passed, and I double check the address on the mailbox to make sure I’m in the right place. I am.

The awning above the front porch has a hole in it, and the bottom step is cracked. Twenty other families live on the same block, each just as poor as the next. Lily is three now. I walk up to the front porch and peer through the window. Lily’s mother sits at the kitchen table, cutting up newspapers. She bought them from her neighbors for ten cents a piece for coupons. Her father sits in the living room, a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Lily plays by herself at her mother’s feet, knocking over cleaning supply bottles and picking them back up. Her mother stands; she’s pregnant again.

I pass through the front door. The house reeks, one of the pipes is broken in the basement. I don’t go down there, but I know that eventually her brother will sneak down and play with the rusted lead pipe. He will die from lead poisoning at the age of seven.

Lily is five, and she kisses her little brother on the cheek as he sleeps in a crib near the washing machine. It’s her first day of kindergarten. She had begged her mom to take her to buy new clothes, but the thrift store was the best they could do. She wears a t-shirt which is two sizes too big for her, and has it tucked into a pair of jeans with a rip at the knee. Her red hair is in two little pigtails that bounce as she jumps from couch to couch, takes the steps two at a time, and makes sure she has everything packed. Her mother takes the back of an old receipt from the neighborhood liquor store and writes an apology note to the teacher. They couldn’t afford tissues, the note says, or colored pencils. She hopes it won’t be an issue.

Lily forgets to lock the gate behind her when she leaves the house, and I wave my hand over the latch as I pass by. It clicks into place with a soft clank, and then I’m immersed in summer sun and Lily. Her energy seems to take up the entire sidewalk, forcing me to walk on the street beside her. She stops two houses before the bus stop, suddenly rigid. At the end of the block, ten or so kids stand with their families--parents and older siblings holding their hands, smoothing out their hair, and telling them how great of a first day they are going to have. Lily has no one.

Her face isn’t sad, but thoughtful. I can tell that, for the first time, she realizes her family isn’t like everyone else’s. I reach out and touch her hand. She doesn’t turn to look at me, her eyes locked straight ahead. Lily squeezes my hand as if to say, “Thank you,” and then walks toward the bus stop. Side by side, we wait. She is the first kid to step up to the bus when it arrives. We don’t let go of each other’s hands until another kid pushes past me and shoves her to the side. She turns back and, for a moment, I wonder if she can see me. The doors of the bus close between us and she stands there in the doorway, our eyes locked.

I sit on the curb every day and wait for her to come home. The dead flock to me by the hundreds and I send them on their way with nothing more than a wave of my hand. Some of them scoff at me as they dissolve, while others pay me little mind. They’re eager to see their husbands, their parents, their animals--not one of them asks why I sit on a curb in Chicago, surrounded by rundown houses and the sounds of drunken violence echoing around me.

At 3:05, the yellow school bus pulls up to the street, right on schedule. Lily steps off the bus, now ten years old, freckles all over her face. She keeps her hair down now, its soft waves slick with grease, dead at the ends. She doesn’t stop in front of me like she usually does. I rush after her and nearly slip on a sheet of ice left behind by the early February rain.

I call out to her and she stops, whirling around to face me. She’s about to cry.

“What happened?” I ask her, reaching out to ruffle her hair the way she likes. She leans into my touch, as if her body can’t bear to support itself on its own. I wonder if she’s still sad about her brother.

“They made fun of me,” she hiccups. “We had to do a project for art and draw what our houses look like. They said that my drawing was stupid.”

Each time she answers me is exactly like the first time, and it takes my breath away. The idea that a living human being can sense my presence, feel the pressure of my touch, and hear my communications is shocking. She knew me at the hospital, and she knows me now. Her soul has spanned three planes--that of the living, Vividus, Praesaepultus, where I exist, and Incorpeus, that of the spirits who have not yet lived. She exists in all three at once, even while alive, which none has ever done before. The universe has no way to control her, or me, anymore.

“Can I see it?” I ask her. She sighs and reluctantly pulls out the art project.

On a white sheet of paper she has drawn her bedroom. The walls are pink, her favorite color, and she’s drawn everything from the stuffed animals on her bed to the rug she keeps in the middle of the room. One of the animals, her lion, is colored black. The color is thick in the middle and then expands outwards, a heavy smudge stark against the pink of the walls. The walls are almost bare, and she’s drawn a heart on what was her brother’s side of the room. His bed is neatly made and folded up while her comforter hangs halfway off her bed. On the dresser sits a lamp with no light coming from it. The door is closed, but the closet open. Lily first smudged pencil lead inside the upright rectangle, and then ran over it with a white crayon until the entire closet is filled with what looks like smoke. I assume the shape to be me.

“Who told you this was bad?”

“Jimmy Klein,” she stomps her foot. “He’s so mean to me for no reason! Just because his brother is alive and he has posters on his wall doesn’t make him better than me!”

I fold up the drawing before handing it back to her.

“You’re better than Jimmy Klein,” I tell her. I don’t tell her that he will buy a brand new Mercedes with Wall Street bonus money at age 32, and then crash it on the highway a week after. He won’t wear a seatbelt, and the impact will eject him from the car. A tractor trailer will catch him mid-air, smearing him across the asphalt.

“I want to be pretty like them,” Lily pulls back, now fourteen years old. Her cheeks are red and black mascara pools beneath her eyes--her green eyes that haven’t twinkled once. “I want boys to like me.”

“Boys like you,” I offer. My chest is tight. She sighs and stands up straight, wiping at her eyes with her sweatshirt sleeves.

“Jimmy likes Amber because her boobs are huge,” Lily chuckles to herself. I struggle to decide if it’s a true laugh, or one made out of acceptance. The living feel so many emotions which they express with the same body language. “I’m going to die alone.”

I wince.

She turns and walks into the house, shoulders slumped. Her mother sits at the kitchen table with a cigarette in one hand, scissors cutting up coupons in the other. Her father is nowhere to be seen, and the backdoor is open.

“Hi, Mom,” she drops her backpack on a chair and walks over to the fridge, opening it up. “Where’s Lucas?”

“We had to put him down today,” her mother replies, not looking up from the stack of newspapers.

“What?” Lily slams the refrigerator shut and whirls around.

“He’s been limping for weeks, Lily,” her mother turns around to face her. “Besides, we couldn’t afford him anyway.”

“Jake loved him,” Lily’s voice shakes just as much as her body. I watch her eyes flit to the knife in the sink. Her hands ball into fists at her sides. I give her a simple shake of my head. No. Her mother turns back to her coupons.

“Jake isn’t here anymore, and neither is Lucas, so get over it. Be a grown up.”

Lily screams and lunges forward. I stumble out of the house and race down the street, my feet slapping against the cracked sidewalk. Her energy pushes me to the other side of the neighborhood before it eases, and then retreats.

When Lily is sixteen, her father dies. He has a heart attack while Lily is at school and her mother hustles pool at the bar down the street. She jumps at the chance to claim his life insurance money, using it to buy a 1998 Mazda Protege. With the promise that she will keep the gas tank full and pay the insurance, Lily gest the keys and a job at the pub bussing tables.

“I think I’m actually going to go to college,” she tells me one night while she’s cleaning. “I’ll start off at a community college, though. Maybe Harold Washington College. And then I’ll move on to a major university, once I get the money saved up.”

I lean against the bar and watch quietly as she dances around the pub, wiping tables and bumping chairs out of the way with her hip. Her hair is long now, almost down to her waist, and loose hairs are sticking out of her braids. Baby fat is turning to womanly curves, and her switch from glasses to contacts makes her appear older than sixteen. Men hit on her at night when they’ve had a few too many, and each night I keep watch.

“I think I want to be a counselor,” she goes on, not forcing a response from me. I smile to myself as I listen. “I just want to help people. Not people, kids. Kids my age, you know?”

The smile fades from my face. I don’t tell her that I do know, but that kids like her can’t be helped. Not because they’re not good enough, or from a bad part of town, but because there aren’t any other kids like her. No other living soul has been marked for death; none of her friends are cursed.

The universe offers little comfort. I cannot see her death no matter how hard I try. I spend hours organizing image after image in my mind, going over each and every death. I organize the images by century, cause, emotion--hers is invisible to me. And the older she gets, the more guilt I feel. I don’t want her to think about college because I don’t know if she’ll live that long. Any moment that I have with her is special, because it could be the last.

Lily stands in a dressing room, a bright blue dress clinging to every inch of her body. It hugs her curves in all of the right places, and she can’t stop twirling in circles before the mirror.

“Oh my god, Lily!” one of her friends swoons, clutching at her heart with dramatic flair. “Why can’t I have your body? All the guys’ll want you. Jimmy Klein is going to-”

My eye twitches, and I know that Lily is biting her tongue. I’ve spent more time than I should have watching him grow up down the street from her. He spent much of his time in middle school making Lily cry, and much of high school harassing her in the halls. He hunts her down at parties and watches her as if she’s a piece of meat that he can’t wait to consume.

I wonder if he’ll play a part in her death.

Lily buys the dress and can’t help but smile for the three weeks leading up to prom. I sit in her room at her desk and watch as she tries it on ten, fifteen times a week. She practices walking in her heels, which are four inches too high, and I laugh every time she trips.

“I don’t want you coming to prom,” Lily tells me the day before the dance. “It’ll be weird. I just want to be a kid and do my own thing, you know?”

*

An odd sensation settles deep within my chest. One week turns to two, and then three. Her body is found behind a dumpster six blocks from her home. I wait for the day that Jimmy Klein dies. It’s the day that I finally let go.





Rachel Gonzalez is a 20-year-old English Major who loves cats way too much. Most of her stories are driven by caffeine, which is why writing and coffee are her two favorite things. She's extremely hopeful for the future and ready to see her work in future publications, both with Quiddity and other publications.

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